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Server architecture challenges Intel

IBM, Compaq, HP are slated to challenge the chip giant again in a proposal for the shape of future systems.

LAS VEGAS--IBM, Compaq, and HP, fresh off their success with the PCI-X server architecture proposal, are working on another architectural proposal for the generation of servers coming out in 2001 and beyond that directly challenges Intel's plans.

The three computer companies and Intel are at loggerheads over the future specifications for the data input-output systems in the next generation of servers.

The dispute, however, goes far beyond the technical specifications being proposed by the companies. The server vendors want more control and input into the design of these machines. More input, they argue, will allow them to build more differentiated machines.

Servers dominated by Intel technology, by contrast, begin to move to commodity status fairly quickly, analysts and sources have said, leading to an emphasis on price and lower margins.

A new proposal would also come with its own political intrigue. The PCI-X standard, released in September, will more than double the rate at which data travels to and from a server. While an improvement, it was not made with the support or cooperation of Intel and has been viewed as a challenge to the company. Several companies, however, came forth quickly to endorse it.

Intel followed the PCI-X announcement with its "Next Generation I/O," or NGIO, an input architecture designed to succeed PCI-X. None of the companies working on the alternative have come out in support of Intel's plan. Instead, they're preparing their own alternative.

Work on the proposal, which is informally known as "Future I/O" is in the initial stages, but a complete specification could come soon, according to Tom Bradicich, director of server architecture and technology at IBM. The standard would be an alternative to "NGIO" standard released by Intel released last week.

"We are informally evaluating options based on the success of PCI-X," he said. "We do see it formalizing."

"We're collectively looking at standards beyond PCI-X. We need a scalable architecture that will allow for differentiation and standardization," said John Rose, senior vice president of enterprise computing at Compaq. Rose would not comment when a proposal will be released, but said, "Time will tell. Stay tuned."

The controversy in many aspects seems rooted in the issue of control. IBM, for instance, mostly appears to want more input from computer vendors in the standards-setting procedure. "We haven't seen the openness we like, and therefore we are not behind it yet," said Bradicich about Intel's NGIO.

Speaking about the standards procedures in general, Bradicich said, "We absolutely must an have an industry standard open environment where input is sought and votes count. There have been instances where an individual company holds the control. We don't want that. We want an environment that is conducive the innovation, not suppressive to innovation."

Money is also an issue. IBM wants to see differentiated servers so that an environment develops where "you get a return on your investment," he said.

Conservative approach
Rose, for his part, said that computer vendors also want to the see standards for input/output technology move faster than they have in the past. Intel, he said, has been a little more conservative in technological changes in this area.

Part of that comes from Intel's position in the manufacturing change, he speculated. Intel sells chips, but doesn't have the same level of interaction with corporate customers. While neither Bradicich nor Rose would comment on the timing of the release of any new standard, it will likely be soon. In the standards realm, the standard that is approved by the critical industry standing committee first becomes the eventual standard.

The standing committee on PCI technology, for instance, recently set up a standing committee to study the PCI-X standard. "That's a big step," said Bradicich. "It doesn't guarantee success, but the prospect is high." IBM and Compaq will also likely have PCI-X compliant systems out in the market late next year or in early 2000, said executives from both companies.

Intel's release of the NGIO specification, therefore, seemingly started the clock for determining the next generation of input systems. Intel has submitted its proposal to the standing committee already.